Julia Hobson is one of the most experienced mountain bike guides out there. Spending her summers guiding in the Alps and her winters in the Lake District, she knows more than anyone that you need to be prepared when heading out into the hills. Julia gives us her top tips on what sort of things you should be looking to have in your backpack

Mountain Bike Backpack Essentials

When you’re lucky enough to spend your life riding your bike every day, it’s easy to become complacent about the contents of your riding bag and what you take with you on each ride. The bag is always packed, ready to go at a moment’s notice, with little thought about changing what’s inside it from day to day. On the plus side, this means less faffing before a ride, putting essential bits together. On the downside, it means I’m often carrying far more than I need (much to the amusement of friends at the size of my “guiding pack”), and when I do have a sort out, will normally find some season-old half-eaten snack, or even worse, mouldy banana skin, buried underneath the things which always live in there!

But I find it’s a question I’m constantly asked by many of the people I guide on trips. “What should I be carrying with me?” The answer to this is that it really does depend. Depend on where you are, how far you’re riding, who you’re riding with, what the season is, and lots of other variables. But there are also some staple items which should probably be in there no matter what you’re doing.

Most of my riding, for work and play, consists of big days out in the Mountains with friends. Rides where you’re out all day, heading off into the hills away from places where you can quickly seek assistance of the mechanical or medical kind. They are the kind of rides where you need to be pretty self-sufficient, and able to get yourself out of tricky situations when they arise. This therefore dictates what I carry in my bag. As the majority of people who ask me what they should carry are planning similar rides, or at least aspiring to the same kind of adventures, I’m going to focus on the essential items I think anyone doing this kind of riding should carry with them. This is a also an excuse to sort my own bag out before I head off to Nepal to race in the Yak Attack Mountain Bike race! I don’t want to be carrying anything that’s not essential as I slog up huge hills whilst struggling to breathe in the thin Himalayan air, and equally, don’t want to be without the items that will keep me safe, and riding, in a remote place, far from help.

This is by no means a definitive list, and there will no doubt be items which others consider essential which I have found from my own experience I just don’t use, as well as other things that I take and another person might not. But hopefully it serves as a rough guide for anyone looking for advice on what to pack when planning some bigger days out riding in the hills. 

Waterproof jacket: An Essential! Obviously in the UK, where our weather means there’s always a chance of rain in the hills, even on the seemingly sunniest of summer days, but also in the Alps, where storms can roll in quickly, even when not forecast, and quickly turn scorching hot, 30 degree days, into freezing cold soaked-to-the-skin misery-fests! Anyone who’s been caught out by one of these situations will know what I mean! There’s a whole range of lightweight, packable waterproofs to suit every budget these days and it really won’t take up that much space in your bag. Even if the weather doesn’t turn bad, it’s a wise choice to have this with you so if you have to stand around unexpectedly you’ve got another layer to keep warm.

Buff: Can be used to keep your head or neck warm, or cold (soak it in a cold stream and put it round your head to bring temperature down!), to mop up blood (let’s hope not, but I’ve experienced this!), and as a makeshift sling for someone with a broken collarbone (again, hopefully you’ll never need to use it for this!) And, it weighs hardly anything, bonus.

First aid kit: I don’t go anywhere without this. I’ve been in enough situations where I’ve relied on it that I know it’s well worth it’s weight, both when I’m working and when I’m out riding with friends. I’ve also come across injured riders from other groups where no-one had a first-aid kit and I’ve been able to stop and help them out…I like to think it’s saving up good karma so if I ever need help at some point I’ll have lots in credit?!! As a minimum there should be antiseptic wipes, steri-strips, wound dressings, bandages, tape. Enough to stop blood flow from wounds and support injured limbs to the point where you can assist someone down to safety, or at least keep them comfortable, and alive, until further help arrives. 

Phone: Charged and kept warm and dry so it’ll still work when you need it, with the emergency number of the country you’re in noted. It’s also worth recording your own next of kin details under the title ICE (In Case of Emergency) in your own phone. There’s pretty good coverage in many areas of the UK and Europe now, even in the middle of the mountains, plus I use mine for taking most of my photos these days!

Map: Even if it’s an area you know well…what if you have to give a grid reference to mountain rescue? Or change plans and get down from high ground in case of a big storm, or find the easiest way to get someone down off a hill. You should obviously know how to use it too!! A GPS device is also useful but I still don’t substitute one for the other! Call me old-fashioned, but you can’t run out of batteries or have an electrical problem with a paper map ;) Compass: You might think that most paths that people will ride on are well-defined and easy to follow, but have you tried riding in parts of Scotland in the mist? Vague trails that could be tracks, or could just be sheep-trails leading nowhere, it can be very disorientating, and get it wrong and you could find yourself descending a loooong way from where you intend to! I’ve only had to use it a few times, but I’ve been really glad of it when I did.

Emergency gels or sweets: For when you just need energy to get you home…something that you’re not likely to use except in an emergency! I take gels as I have to be really on my last legs before I’m likely to reach for them! If it was chocolate then I’d raid my bag at home in between rides and eat it!

Food: Whatever your preference is. I like real food, sandwiches, cold pizza, fruit, nuts, homemade energy balls.

Foil blanket: You’ll barely notice it’s weight, but it could be a lifesaver if you or someone you are riding with has an accident and is waiting for help. If I’m guiding with a group I’ll have a group shelter too.

Pump: For fixing flat tyres. An easy trail-fix to learn if you don’t know how (look for online videos to help and learn this skill before you need to use it for real on the trail!)

Shock pump: At least someone in your group should have one of these if you’re heading out for a big long ride. They really don’t weigh anymore than a standard tyre pump, in fact you can buy some that serve as both shock and tyre pumps (I haven’t actually used one of these so can’t comment on how well they work at either of these jobs!)

2 x inner tubes: I run my tyres tubeless, but if you slash a tyre sidewall and it’s not possible to repair whilst out on the trail then you’re going to need inner tubes to continue riding. Even if you don’t use them, someone in your group might need to, and they can be swopped in exchange for beer credits in the pub post-ride!

Puncture/tubeless repair kit: A great bit of kit which I use probably more than anything else in my bag whilst I’m guiding! These little plugs enable you to fix small holes in your tubeless tyre and to save the need to put a tube in. Once you get the hang of using them it’s a quick and easy trailside fix.

Toothpaste tube: If the hole in your tyre is too big to plug, I.e. the sidewall is completely slashed open, you can use pieces of old toothpaste tube on the inside of the tyre to protect the inner tube from bulging out and puncturing. Gel wrappers also work well! As do proper Tyre Boots if you want to spend more money ;)

Gear Cable: Weighs nothing, and replacing a snapped gear cable is an easy repair to do trailside.

Mech hangar: Essential, and specific to your bike, so carry the right one

Multi tool: Essential, this gets used all the time for any little trail fixes

Power links: To fix a broken chain. These are tiny, almost weightless, and the difference between misery and fun!

Duct tape: Can fix anything! I wrap some around my pump so I don’t have to carry a big roll of it.

Cable ties: With a combination of these and duct tape pretty much anything is bodgeable!

Leatherman: Useful for bending bent rims back out, cutting cables, making cheese sandwiches etc etc

Tyre levers: For pushing brake pistons back, removing stubborn tyres, splinting broken body parts?!

Spare bolt assortment: I have needed bits from this little tin lots of times! Cleat bolts, attachment bolts, brake pad pins, allsorts. A really useful thing to carry.

Camelback bladder: Or bottles if that’s what you prefer to drink from. I’ll always take a bit more than I think I need as I really don’t like running out of water.

In Winter I’ll add an extra layer and a warm hat, either a synthetic jacket or a merino top, or both if it looks really cold! Plus a spare set of warm gloves, there’s nothing worse than cold wet hands.

In Summer there’ll be some suncream in there instead of the above!

I also take some cash, and a credit card, and a card with my emergency contact details on. There have been times when I’ve ended up going to hospital (either for myself or with a friend or client) and there’s no chance to get back to the car to get a wallet. A bit of cash is also useful if you find yourself sheltering in a pub mid-ride and need beer money!

If I’m Guiding, I’ll carry all the above plus extra food and gels, a bigger more comprehensive first aid kit, and a group shelter. And if I’m on a bothy or multiday trip then a bigger pack is definitely needed, to be able to hold things like a sleeping bag, stove, and extra food etc!

If you pack it right, all this should fit in a 15-20L bag just fine. I like to keep things in lightweight dry bags inside my bag, so I know they’ll stay dry if it rains, and also as it makes it easier to find things in there. The tools are kept in a separate front pocket so I can get to them easily when I need them, and also because I don’t like to have sharp pointy things sticking in my back as I ride, or if I crash! But really there is no right or wrong way to pack, just find a system that works for you and get out on some adventures in the hills! To the Mountains……!